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"There! You've said it! It's like running on half-time when you're used to a day-and-night shift. Something's lacking. It isn't that Henry isn't grand to me, because he is. Evenings, we're so happy that we just sit and grin at each other and half the time we forget to go to a `movie.' After Henry leaves in the morning, I get to work. I suppose, in the old days, when women used to have to chop the kindling, and catch the water for washing in a rain-barrel, and keep up a fire in the kitchen stove and do their own bread baking and all, it used to keep 'em hustling. But, my goodness! A four-room flat for two isn't any work. By eleven, I'm through. I've straightened everything, from the bed to the refrigerator; the marketing's done, and the dinner vegetables are sitting around in cold water. The mending for two is a joke. Henry says it's a wonder I don't sew double-breasted buttons on his undershirts."
Emma was not smiling. But, then, neither was Hortense. She was talking lightly, seemingly, but her pretty face was quite serious.
"The big noise in my day is when Henry comes home at six. That was all right and natural, I suppose, in those times when a quilting-bee was a wild afternoon's work, and teaching school was the most advanced job a woman could hold down."
Emma was gazing fascinated at the girl's sparkling face. Her own eyes were very bright, and her lips were parted.
"Tell me, Hortense," she said now; "what does Henry say to all this? Have you told him how you feel?"
"Well, I--I talked to him about it once or twice. I told him that I've got about twenty-four solid hours a week that I might be getting fifty cents an hour for. You know, I worked for a manuscript-typewriting concern before I came over to Buck's--plays and stories and that kind of thing. They used to like my work because I never queered their speeches by leaving out punctuation or mixing up the characters. The manager there said I could have work any time I wanted it. I've got my own typewriter. I got it second hand when I first started in. Henry picks around on it sometimes, evenings. I hardly ever touch it. It's getting rusty--and so am I."
"It isn't just the money you want, Hortense? Are you sure?"
"Of course I'd like the money. That extra coming in would mean books--I'm crazy about reading, and so is Henry--and theaters and lots of things we can't afford now. But that isn't all. Henry don't want to be a shipping-clerk all his life. He's crazy about mechanics and that kind of stuff. But the books that he needs cost a lot. Don't you suppose I'd be proud to feel that the extra money I'd earned would lift him up where he could have a chance to be something! But Henry is dead set against it. He says he is the one that's going to earn the money around here. I try to tell him that I'm used to using my mind. He laughs and pinches my cheek and tells me to use it thinking about him." She stopped suddenly and regarded Emma with conscience-stricken eyes. "You don't think I'm running down Henry, do you? My goodness, I don't want you to think that I'd change back again for a million dollars, because I wouldn't." She looked up at Emma, conscience-stricken.
Emma came swiftly over and put one hand on the girl's shoulder.
"I don't think it. Not for a minute. I know that the world is full of Henrys, and that the number of Hortenses is growing larger and larger. I don't know if the four-room flats are to blame, or whether it's just a natural development. But the Henry-Hortense situation seems to be spreading to the nine-room-and-three-baths apartments, too."
Hortense nodded a knowing head.
"I kind of thought so, from the way you were listening."
The two, standing there gazing at each other almost shyly, suddenly began to laugh. The laugh was a safety-valve. Then, quite as suddenly, both became serious. That seriousness had been the under-current throughout.
"I wonder," said Emma very gently, "if a small Henry, some day, won't provide you with an outlet for all that stored-up energy."
Hortense looked up very bravely.
"Maybe. You--you must have been about my age when your boy was born. Did he make you feel--different?"
The shade of sadness that always came at the mention of those unhappy years of her early marriage crept into Emma's face now.
"That was not the same, dear," she explained. "I hadn't your sort of Henry. You see, my boy was my only excuse for living. You'll never know what that means. And when things grew altogether impossible, and I knew that I must earn a living for Jock and myself, I just did it--that's all. I had to."
Hortense thought that over for one deliberate moment. Her brows were drawn in a frown.
"I'll tell you what I think," she announced, at last, "though I don't know that I can just exactly put it into words. I mean this: Some people are just bound to--to give, to build up things, to--well, to manufacture, because they just can't help it. It's in 'em, and it's got to come out. Dynamos--that's what Henry's technical books would call them. You're one--a great big one. I'm one. Just a little tiny one. But it's sparking away there all the time, and it might as well be put to some use, mightn't it?"
Emma bent down and kissed the troubled forehead, and then, very tenderly, the pretty, puckered lips.
"Little Hortense," she said, "you're asking a great big question. I can answer it for myself, but I can't answer it for you. It's too dangerous. I wouldn't if I could."
Emma, waiting in the hall for the lift, looked back at the slim little figure in the doorway. There was a droop to the shoulders. Emma's heart smote her.
"Don't bother your head about all this, little girl," she called back to her. "Just forget to be ambitious and remember to be happy. That's much the better way."
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Ferber's Short Stories Vol. 2 -by- Edna Ferber